The Value of Web Conferences

In recent months, the debate over conference pricing and their value has been getting a few people riled up. It’s understandable that organizing such events comes with price tags at various ends of the spectrum, and this cost (of course) has to be passed onto attendees and sponsors.

However, what is particularly annoying to me about the debate is that the focus always seems to be upon the obvious or most easily recognized consequences of attending a conference. As someone who is blessed with a few excellent conferences on my doorstep (thanks there goes to ClearLeft amongst others), I feel it’s about time that the unsung benefits of attendee-ship get the recognition they rightfully deserve.

The Value of Web Conferences

Within this article I’m going to show you that with the right mind-set, you can critically increase the value you get from attending conferences, perhaps in ways that you’d not considered before. Unlike articles or books, attending these events is a bit of an art form itself and in many cases, the real and long-term benefits require a bit of effort to gain rather than just sitting and listening.

As it stands, when I first considered attending conferences I was pretty sceptical, but now I’m a convert and have come to terms with the fact that if you act smart, the value of conferences can be very high indeed.

Conferences come in various shapes and sizes

Figure 1: Conferences come in various shapes and sizes, and even the smaller ones can be amazing.

Note: While I recognise that the attendance cost vs. speaker value can vary greatly depending on the originality or usefulness of their content, this article looks at how conferences offer more than just listening to people exchange views for the price of a ticket; the monetary value is in the experience.

The Alternatives: In A Nutshell

One of the great things about our industry is that so many options exist to enhance your training and experience and many of these come with a wide range of price tags. If you’ve got no money, there’s plenty of great blogs and resource sites like this one. If you’ve only got a few dollars, books can provide unique insights into a particular subject of your choosing for a relatively low price.

If you’ve a few spare dollars a month, magazines and course-based sites can provide an ever-rotating influx of learning. Furthermore, yearly conferences, training sessions, and academic courses can be attended.

Online training

Figure 2: Online training in particular has become a popular alternative to mainstream conferences.

Not surprisingly, the age old question of value always seems to come down to cost. Why get yourself an academic qualification when you can teach yourself for next to nothing? Why visit conferences if you can buy a book on the subject? Why buy a book if you can read articles for free? And more to the point, why pay for training, books or a conference ticket when there are free legal version of all these options? I’m not going to take sides, because I do think both the free options and the paid ones are equally useful, but where I am going to make a dent is in the questioning of the value they offer.

Upfront and Immediate Benefits

If we’re going to justify turning up to a paid conference from the smaller ones to the bigger ones, the first thing we obviously need to mention are the speaker(s). Ensure that you know who is going to be speaking before you buy a ticket and you are happy with what subjects they are covering.

You will want to look to past reviews of the overall experience, the conferences website and perhaps the speakers’ own sites to get a bit of background if necessary – they may have some juicy pre-release gossip for you, as might the conference organizer’s site.

Flying blind isn’t a smart way to get value, so research will often be rewarded with added excitement knowing that you’re seeing useful talks!

Some of the best places to find fantastic conferences include sites like those listed in the below bullet points. Many of them are simple blog posts, which outline upcoming conferences that tend to recur on a yearly basis, others are wonderful sites like Lanyrd who connect people with regional conferences. As to which to attend, while established events like dConstruct, Future of Web Design, New Adventures and the Event Apart series often get the highest praise and detailed reviews to examine, based on previous years; you shouldn’t discount smaller or less well known ones. In 2011, my two favourites were low cost conferences that hadn’t ever occurred before: The InSites tour (Brighton) and Update!

Conference finding resources:

Speakers and attendees matter most
Figure 3: Speakers and attendees matter most, so use sites like Lanyrd to see who is going to attend.

Critical issues from organizers which immediately put me off attending and should make you wary include when they fail to announce either speakers or subjects prior to the tickets going on sale even early bird ones – which is something you should look out for, as if you’re quick enough, you can cut the cost down; as can student tickets if any exist. I personally won’t attend conferences that are blind selling, as I’m not going to pay and risk being disappointed. With larger conferences there is also the potential issue of having multiple speakers on at the same time in different rooms. While it obviously reduces costs and keeps conference lengths under control, I wouldn’t want to pay 100% of the fee for only 50% of the active value by that I mean being physically present for all of the fun.

Getting More for your Money

So you’ve found a conference that has some great speakers, you’ve calculated your costs to attend and you want to maximize what you get out of it? Now that we’ve identified and talked about the most obvious ways people benefit from a conference (listening to the speakers you know will be attending), it’s about time we examined some of the finer points to maximizing your experience. Each of the below things may seem rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people attend these kind of events just to listen to the speakers (not that it’s a bad thing, but it does make you question the value of conferences if everything rests on those giving the talks). Consider the below:

  • Look for others who will be attending the event. You might find friends who you could catch up with, meet in person for the first time, or simply chat to some well known faces who have shown up as attendees (you’d be surprised how friendly us conference people are). When I visited my first conference, I shook hands with many a smiling face and had a decent chat!
  • Even if you show up and you don’t know anyone, find someone to talk too, and as you go through the day, keep greeting other attendees (don’t be shy). You may end up with some new friends, business connections, or someone to sneakily advertise your products too. The value in being able to connect with likeminded people is something that no book can offer.
  • Chat to the people who are giving the talks (if you can), and join workshops if they’re being offered (if they’re free or not too much more). This is an extension of the previous point, but I find it shocking how many people just listen to the speaker and then exit. I’m always up the front with questions or friendly comments, and it’s a great way to talk to your web heroes!
  • Attend the pre / after party (and prepare for a hangover). While the conference itself is cool, and a great way to meet people, the parties are usually when everyone starts talking about what they’ve heard. I’ve made plenty of friends at these and while I’m not the most social creature, it’s worth the time (plus free booze from the sponsors, who’s complaining there?).
  • Check what freebies are going. At many conferences you might stumble upon the occasional free promotional give-away. Larger conferences may have swag bags, but it doesn’t mean the cheaper ones are less beneficial. It could be a sponsor giveaway, another attendee giving coupon codes for a new service, coffee on tap, or just videos of the event from organizers.
  • Make notes on the event and create something. Here is the big one for me. When I attend a conference, I’m sitting there with my iPhone making notes. Why? Well for one I have a bad memory, but beyond this, I’ve gone on to be inspired and found project ideas, article ideas and more from the info. Sure I’ve learnt stuff, but ideas can turn conference costs into profit!

Checklist of Things

Figure 4: The above is a checklist of things you should take with you to achieve the above.

You Only Get What You Give

There will be many people reading this who have attended a conference and spent their time in the hall, listen to what the speakers had to say and go home. For those people, and those outside who think that’s all a conference is, they won’t get much more value than if they simply read a book. But for those of us who make the most of the opportunity by making friends, forging connections, being inspired, getting ideas, chatting to the speakers off-stage this isn’t always possible or perhaps even getting some business from meeting someone, the cost of attending is actually worth every penny.

When I attended my first conference – dConstruct 2010, I plucked up the courage to converse with the speakers (some more chatty than others), the attendees (the same) and made lots of notes for future projects or articles based on the inspiring talks. I exited with enough article and project ideas to cover the initial cost of the ticket, and some new friends too, which is more than just attending would deliver.

Conferences require the right attitude and mind-set to be extra beneficial, so if you can muster up the courage to get involved, you could end up a conference fanboy in no time, having a laugh with me in person in preference to just glancing at static content from behind a boring desk!

Alexander Dawson is a freelance web designer, author and recreational software developer specializing in web standards, accessibility and UX design. As well as running a business called HiTechy and writing, he spends time on Twitter, SitePoint’s forums and other places, helping those in need.

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